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Drakengard 3 Review: An Odd, Disgusting, and Beautiful Mess
To say that Drakengard 3 is one of the strangest games I’ve ever reviewed would be an understatement. Just so we’re clear, I don’t just mean that the game itself is weird, (although it totally is), but also the process of trying to gather my thoughts on the game as a whole has been one of the most vexing and surprisingly difficult things I’ve done in recent memory. On the one hand, the game is an absolute mess on the technical level, its story can’t be fully appreciated without supplementary materials, and its protagonist is incredibly polarizing. On the other, combat is fun, most of the characters are interesting, and the story is surprisingly meatier and more thoughtful than its somewhat juvenile first impressions might indicate.
Let’s start with the story.
Set some hundred or so years before the events of the first Drakengard, out story follows Zero, a foul-mouthed, irritable and incredibly angry young woman with a parasitic flower on her right eye, on her quest to track down and murder her five sisters. Zero and her sisters, all of whom share numerical names based on the numbers one through five, are all Intoners, demi-god like women who are able to channel incredible power through the use of song. Accompanying Zero on her fratricidal quest is Mikhail, a young and rather naïve dragon who provides Zero with air support and allows her to take to the skies as she searches the world for her sisters. The Five Intoner sisters all rule over different regions of the world, and each of them, with the exception of One, also has a disciple who serves them.
Drakengard 3 is an odd story to experience. Right from the get-go, you start to question if Zero’s actions are noble, or if she’s just a power hungry murderer. The game makes it clear that the Intoners have brought peace to the lands after vanquishing the previous lords who ruled, and Zero often sums up her motivations as being the only one who has access to the Intoner’s power. With each sister marked off her hit list, Zero also takes their disciples on as her own. These include the sadistic and snarky Dito, the gentleman with a masochistic streak Decadus, the sagacious and incredibly perverted Octa, and the dimwitted and obnoxious Cent. In addition to joining Zero in combat, the disciples also fulfill her sexual desires, which apparently comes with the territory for Intoners.
The Intoner sisters themselves are quite a colorful bunch, too. Sadly, we rarely get to know them as well as we do the disciples, since much of their screen time is fairly short lived. The characters are going to be what make or break much of this game for people. As I’ve mentioned, Zero is not a terribly redeemable or likable protagonist/antihero. At one point in the game, she even describes herself as “kind of a dick.” The disciples make for some humorous foils, both in their dialogue with Zero and each other. Though something that might be a turnoff is the profuse and amount of cursing and pretty juvenile attempts and sexual innuendos. By no means am I a prude, but most of the attempts at sexual humor fall flat and start to feel like the game is trying too hard to be edgy. It’s like watching a young kid try to sound more adult by swearing and taking about boobs and dicks.
And yet, it’s also strangely endearing. I came to like the characters as I played through the game. The only character that isn’t amoral or twisted is Mikhail, who acts as the child-like voice of reason for the rest of the group, often trying to persuade Zero to talk to her sisters instead of murdering them. But even Mikhail isn’t always safe, as this is game where horrible things happen to literally everyone. Drakengard 3 isn’t a happy story, at all. The story is brutal, visceral and often unpleasant, a series staple really, and will often have you questioning your role as the player. Are you the actually the villain or is there some deeper meaning behind Zero’s goals? In that respect the game is brilliant, but the slog it takes to see these questions answered might be a turn off for most players, even those that are fans of the series.
So how does the game play?
Not too shabby, for the most part. Combat sees Zero using one of four weapon types including swords, spears, gauntlets, and chakrams to take down waves of foes in a vein similar to the Dynasty Warriors franchise and its own PS2 predecessor. You’ll be able to string together a variety of combos and even switch between weapon types mid combo for some really dynamic and fun attack strings. While not quite as versatile as something like Bayonetta, the game’s combat is a lot of fun and results in some cool finishing blows. This is of course, provided you can handle the game’s rather spotty camera and erratic targeting system. I never found the game terribly difficult, and the only times I ever died came as a result of the camera locking up at weird angles or the targeting system sending me careening into a large monster or hail or arrows that I was trying to avoid.
As Zero gets covered in the blood of her foes, she’ll be able to activate Intoner Mode for a short period of time. While in this mode, Zero will turn bright pink, forgo her weapons and dash about the screen and breakneck speeds, clawing and kicking at foes. While in this mode, Zero is also invincible. It’s a great way to tear through scores of enemies at once or unleash big damage on bosses. My only issue with it is that fact that as you enter the mode, the game sometimes autolocks onto a target, even if you weren’t attacking or even facing said foe.
In addition to ground combat, Zero will also mount her faithful dragon in a handful of levels. The dragon controls feel a tad clunky and the sky combat stages might take a bit of getting used to, but for the most part I enjoyed moments when I got to use Mikhail. One control aspect I did not care for, however, was the really shoddy platforming. Jumping from platforms or across gaps never felt smooth or satisfying, and in the case of one of the sub-missions, which are themselves little more than repetitive fetch quests, trying to jump across some of gaps and platforms was more frustrating than any amount of combat ever was.
While the story is worth seeing to the end and the gameplay is solid, the game suffers a lot on the technical side. I know that the first two Drakengard games and their spin-off Nier were not particularly pretty, but for a late PS3 era game, Drakengard 3 has way too much in common with middle to late era PS2 games. The color pallet seems kind of washed out, and plenty of the textures seem off or stretched a bit. The game’s environments are very linear and often look the same. The frame rate suffers at some of the most random times, and the game’s camera is obnoxious. Your AI partners are practically useless and will spend more time running and clipping through parts of the environment than actually helping you in fights. The product as a whole just feels rushed and looks more like what a somewhat untested beta build of the game might resemble.
The character models and attack animations do look nice though, and the few non-game engine cutscenes look amazing. The opening video before the prologue level in particular looks fantastic. The voice acting is solid all-around and the soundtrack is wonderful. Keiichi Okabe and the rest of the sound team did an excellent job, and while not quite as strong as the musical splendor that is Nier’s soundtrack, Drakengard 3 is game whose music I still really enjoy listening to while I write (like as I’m writing this review, for instance). Another nice little feature is the stories that come with each of the game’s many weapons. As you upgrade your tools of the trade, you’ll uncover little bits of backstory for them, which makes each of them feel very unique and interesting.
Drakengard 3 is a mess of a game. It is the definition of an acquired taste title. It might not be the prettiest game, or have the most fluid technical elements, but it does have a fascinating, if not somewhat difficult to get into story. It’s not as good as Nier and I’d say it’s on par with the original Drakengard, but Drakengard 3 is an experience unlike any other, for both the good and the bad.